If you're lucky, one day you might receive an opportunity to speak your mind to your local elected officials in city hall. I've been fortunate enough to have been asked to address our local city council on Democracy Day.
Democracy Day is an event celebrated by several cities, and it's sponsored here in Toledo by Move to Amend and Ohio Single-Payer Action Network. This year, unfortunately, I came down with COVID at the last minute and was unable to attend in person, but my testimony was added to the record. Here's what I have to say about how corporations aren't people, people have human rights, and our government has the power to protect our health and safety from the abuses of corporations such as Norfolk Southern.
Accountable to the Citizens
(Democracy Day 2023)
by C. A. Matthews
“Accountable to the citizens, not Wall Street.”
This is a bullet point I read on an Ohio Single-Payer Action Network (SPAN) leaflet. It begins by stating “Realizing the right to health care,” and follows with the idea that health care should be, “Universal,” and “Have high quality standards of care for all.” Health care should also be “Publicly financed” and emphasizes that it “Is not tied to employment.” All of these are excellent points to make, but the one I want to focus on today, Democracy Day 2023, is this: “Accountable to the citizens, not Wall Street.”
To put it bluntly, our health, our safety, and our lives should never be made subservient to the whims and the profits of corporations. Even simpler yet—no one should be making money off of anyone’s illness or need for medical treatment. But time and time again we read headlines such as: “Big Pharmaceutical makes billions off of new vaccine whose research was publicly funded.” We read headlines about how the US is the only so-called developed nation where families go bankrupt trying to pay for their health care—health care that is provided freely, as a public service, in most other developed countries.
“Accountable to the citizens, not Wall Street.” So, why aren’t we holding Wall Street accountable for the thousands of preventable deaths each year in the US, deaths caused by the lack of access to health care? What are we afraid of really by not holding Wall Street accountable? Not being bullied to death by billionaires?
Wall Street not only rules our access to health care, it also rules our ability to remain safe in our homes and communities. One recent example drives this point home more than ever: The toxic chemical burn instigated after the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. This prescribed burn of derailed tanker cars full of vinyl chloride released phosgene gas into the air and extremely poisonous dioxins into the environment.
If you’re old enough to remember the EPA Super Fund site of the village of Times Beach, Missouri, you’ll remember just how teratogenic and carcinogenic dioxins are to human life. If you’re old enough to remember learning about the First World War, you’ll recall that phosgene gas was a colorless gas that killed thousands of soldiers in the trenches.
Scarier still, this type of event probably won’t be the last time a train-full of toxic chemicals derails in the Buckeye State. That same Norfolk Southern train that derailed in East Palestine passed through Toledo earlier. What if that train had derailed in Toledo? Would we be standing here sharing our thoughts today at Democracy Day, or would we have been evacuated to a safer locale instead? Would we be discussing the rights of corporations to have the same rights as persons or the fact that we all had just been poisoned by a for-profit venture that couldn’t care less about our health and safety?
Our state attorney general has recently started a lawsuit against Norfolk Southern, to sue for damages from the derailment, but can money alone repay the harm caused to our neighbors in East Palestine? Can money alone bring the thousands of heads of livestock, fish, birds, deer, and other wildlife back from the dead? Can money alone relieve fears, rejuvenate the town’s ruined reputation, or realize a perfectly reborn environment in Eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania?
Money can’t buy love, and it certainly can’t bring back the dead. Not even corporate persons with deep pockets like Norfolk Southern have that kind of godlike power. The best option in this case is to never let something like the derailment and toxin burn that happened in East Palestine ever happen again.
Money can’t buy everything. We the People shouldn’t accept it alone as redress for these incalculable losses. I think we as citizens of Toledo, subject to three days without drinkable water in 2014, can empathize with the plight of the people of East Palestine, as we also suffered—and still suffer—from corporations’ rights taking precedence over human beings’ rights when it comes to our water.
The Lake Erie Billof Rights, better known as LEBOR, is the first "Rights of Nature" law that citizens passed by a definite majority in the US. It demonstrates that concerned citizens have caught on to the specious argument that “corporations are people.” Our rights to clean water were abridged by factory farm corporations that continually dump untreated animal wastes into our drinking water supply. A factory farm, Drewes Farms, claimed in their lawsuit against LEBOR that they had the right of “free speech,” and that their “rights” would be abridged if they had to clean up their animals’ effluence before it entered into the Maumee River watershed. If I hadn’t been sitting in the courtroom that day the verdict was read, I would have never believed such a specious argument could have convinced a federal district judge, but heck—they won, didn’t they?
I suppose Norfolk Southern will argue their rights to “free speech” could be abridged, just like Drewes Farms, if they were forbidden to burn toxic chemicals from their derailed train cars in East Palestine and elsewhere. I’m not that optimistic the state of Ohio will ever see any meaningful recompense for the victims of the burn from the dream team of lawyers that Norfolk Southern is lining up even as I speak. As I sat in that courtroom as the fate of LEBOR hung in the balance, I experienced up close what corporate money and lobbying does in the state of Ohio and in this country. It doesn’t protect the right of the people, that’s for sure.
Without possessing massive amounts of money like corporations, we mere human beings are defenseless. This means that We the People must take direct action to protect ourselves from these corporate-caused harms to our health, safety and environment.
On this Democracy Day, I propose that the city of Toledo resurrect its bravery that it displayed defending LEBOR and pass resolutions to protect its citizens from potential harms caused by toxic chemicals transported through our city. Trains, trucks, barges, boats, and planes can all carry toxic substances that, if leaked into our environment, can kill, injure, and maim our people, pets, livestock and wildlife. We can’t afford to let that happen. If what happened in East Palestine happened here in Toledo, a city with at least 60 times the population, it would have made the national news in less than three days and possibly even enticed Mayor Pete or President Biden to visit us in less then a week rather than a month later (or not at all).
Toledoans must put human rights above corporate profits and institute rules, regulations and safety procedures to prevent derailments or spills of toxins into our city’s environment. To ignore this potential threat or to think that only higher levels of government can or will handle this kind of emergency is to ignore the reality of the corporate owned and operated political system Americans are currently trapped in. Our neighbors in East Palestine discovered that ordinary Americans can’t depend on the federal or the state EPA to test for toxins or even to give us the truth about our health and safety in a timely manner. We the People must fend for ourselves as a community. We can do it.
Last year, Toledo instituted a program to pay off the outstanding medical debts of its citizens. This compassionate act has been duplicated in numerous cities across the US since then. Clearly, we have the smarts and the empathy to take care of our own. Toledo doesn’t have to bow down and kiss corporations’ backsides and put up with so-called “corporate persons” polluting our water, land, and air. We can fight back, and we should fight back.
It’s time for Toledo to become known as a city where human rights reign supreme and corporate profits take a back seat to our community’s health and safety. Toledo can make a difference and should make a difference in the world—a positive, human-centric difference. Our children and grandchildren will thank us for our insight and bravery.
The State of East Palestine Ohio From the Eyes of a Local https://popularresistance.org/the-state-of-east-palestine-ohio-from-the-eyes-of-a-local/
How Corporate Greed Destroyed East Palestine (Documentary film by Second Thought) https://youtu.be/TcSLlveDu6k
Rail Workers Demand Immediate Action from Lawmakers to Rein in Rail Industry https://truthout.org/articles/rail-workers-demand-immediate-action-from-lawmakers-to-rein-in-rail-industry/
Exposure to Chevron's Climate Friendly Fuel May Pose Severe Risk of Cancer https://truthout.org/articles/exposure-to-chevrons-climate-friendly-fuel-may-pose-severe-risk-of-cancer/
Poison and Private Police: Norfolk Southern Destroys East Palestine https://odysee.com/@TheGrayzone:c/poison-and-private-police-norfolk:a
The Toxic Rail Disaster in Ohio: The Homicidal Indifference of the Ruling Class Laid Bare https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2023/02/15/zbrv-f15.html
Biden DOJ Backing Norfolk Southern’s Bid To Block Lawsuits https://www.levernews.com/bidens-doj-backing-norfolk-southern-case-to-block-lawsuits/
Rail Company Claims East Palestine Water Is Safe After Funding Sloppy Testing https://truthout.org/articles/rail-company-claims-east-palestine-water-is-safe-after-funding-sloppy-testing
A Norfolk Southern Policy Lets Officials Order Crews To Ignore Safety Alerts https://scheerpost.com/2023/02/23/a-norfolk-southern-policy-lets-officials-order-crews-to-ignore-safety-alerts/The Value American Capitalism Places on Workers’ Lives: BP fined $156,250 for the deaths of two refinery operators in Ohio explosion https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2023/03/24/pers-m24.html
White House to Shut Down COVID Response Task Force https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2023/03/24/pned-m24.html
From Move to Amend:
The Norfolk Southern Corporation train derailment and subsequent hazardous chemical release in and beyond East Palestine, Ohio are the inevitable result of multiple anti-democratic realities.
Many are interconnected and are the same for the roughly 1000 train derailments per year.
Private ownership of railroads
Norfolk Southern Corporation’s record earnings in 2022 benefited its top managers, speculators and investors. Maximizing profits have been prioritized over necessary investments in technology upgrades and worker safety. The Railroad Workers United in response is calling for public ownership of railroads, as they once were in WWI.
Lack of worker power
Strikes are powerful tactics of workers to exert leverage against management on safety issues and fair treatment. Unions representing rail workers have been virtually unable to strike since passage of the Railway Labor Act in 1926, which gives the government, specifically the President and Congress, vast powers to force workers to accept alternative means of resolving disputes.
No community rights
Communities have little authority to control material coming into or even passing through their jurisdictions by trains or trucks if that material can be defined as “commerce,” based on the Constitution’s Commerce Clause. Ohio state and E. Palestine officials weren’t even notified the Norfolk Southern train that derailed was carrying vinyl chloride, ethylhexyl acrylate and other highly toxic chemicals.
Corporate campaign contributions
The Railroad industry has poured $85 million into federal candidate campaigns, political parties and outside spending groups since 2002. Norfolk Southern’s political investments have been $17 million since 1990. At the state level, the corporation invested $98,000 into Ohio political races since 2018, with Gov. Mike DeWine (who at first didn’t call for federal assistance following the E. Palestine disaster since he didn’t see a problem) being the largest recipient. At the very least, political campaign contributions buy access to public officials; at worst, buys favors.
The railroad industry invested $24.6 million to employ 265 reported lobbyists to influence the federal government in 2022 – Norfolk Southern’s portion was $1.8 million. Rail lobbyists and $6 million from the rail industry to GOP campaigns in 2017 effectively reversed requirements that rail cars carrying hazardous flammable materials have modern electronic braking systems. Lobbyists have sought for fewer workers on trains, trains to be longer and heavier, and reduced fines for penalties – as well as against installing modern electronic braking systems, paid sick leave for workers and having to define trains carrying hazardous chemicals like the Norfolk Southern that derailed in E. Palestine as “high hazard,” which would increase additional safety requirements, costs and public notification.
Supreme Court decisions
The High Court decided that corporate entities have the constitutional right to contribute to political campaigns. This has permitted corporations like Norfolk Southern to corrupt the political process favorable to their interests, such as the previously mentioned laws and regulations profitable to railroads, Supreme Court-granted corporate Fourth Amendment search and seizure rights prevent surprise inspections of corporate property like trains meant to protect workers and communities.
Ineffective and/or captured regulatory agencies
Public safety inspections are not only limited by constitutional rights, but by regulatory agency funding. The Federal Railroad Administration, the major railroad regulatory agency, has only 400 inspectors. This has forced the FHA to increasingly allow railroad corporations to inspect their own trains, tracks and signals. The EPA recently announced that its requiring Norfolk Southern to directly test for dioxins in East Palestine. Where’s the public accountability when, in effect, an entity guilty of crime gets to be the prosecutor, judge and jury?
Criminalization of protest
Forty-five states have considered 265 “anti-protest” bills, 39 of which have already passed in 20 states since 2017. Penalties of felonies serve as a deterrent to individuals to attend public events and send the message that those who protest must be extremists. This mindset is reflected in the reaction by federal and Ohio “law enforcement” agencies to the recent visit of whistleblower Erin Brockovich to E. Palestine. A report by the agencies "assesses that special interest extremist groups will continue to call for changes in governmental policy, which may lead to protests in/around East Palestine and/or at the Statehouse in Columbus.”
The East Palestine tragedy is sadly just a symptom of current political realities and calls for fundamental systemic change.
Enacting the We the People Amendment, HJR48 that would abolish all corporate constitutional rights and political money defined as free speech, is urgent. But fundamental self-governance goes beyond the amendment.
people's movements led by individuals who’ve been historically treated
unjustly is a prerequisite for how to get real democracy on track – for
the very first time.
* * *
More on Democracy Day from Move to Amend:
Citizens Testify at Local Public Hearings in Ohio to End Corrupt Elections and Corporate Rule
Twelve public hearings are taking place in Ohio this year on the corruption resulting from the explosion of money spent in political elections and multiple harms due to increasing corporate power to influence elections and public policies.
The hearings are a result of citizen-driven ballot initiatives organized by supporters of the national Move to Amend Coalition working to pass the We the People Amendment (HJR48), introduced again this year in the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D, WA).
The ballot initiatives called for municipalities to inform federal and state officials representing their municipalities that citizens support an Amendment to the U.S. Constitution establishing that a corporation is not a person and political money spent in elections is not equivalent to First Amendment-protected free speech. The ballot initiatives also mandated municipalities to send to those same representatives a summary of testimony presented at an annual or biennial municipal-sponsored “Democracy Day” public hearings. All 12 communities that organized successful ballot initiatives have hearings this year, 11 sponsored by municipalities.
The 12 communities with public hearings from February to September are Defiance, Mentor, Chagrin Falls, Painesville, Toledo, Brecksville, South Euclid, Cleveland, Cleveland Heights, Shaker Heights, Newburgh Heights and Kent.
Seven hundred communities and eight states across the country have passed municipal resolutions and ballot initiatives since the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United decision calling on Congress to pass a Constitutional Amendment to abolish corporate constitutional rights and money defined as free speech. In addition to the 12 Ohio communities that organized ballot initiatives beginning in 2012, 14 Ohio localities have passed municipal resolutions. These include Athens, Oberlin, Barberton, Fremont, Lakewood, South Euclid, Dayton, Canton, Oxford, Lorain, Bedford Heights, Oakwood Village, Tallmadge, University Heights.
“People across our state and nation are increasingly aware of and working to resist the corruption of big money in politics and unaccountable power of corporations over literally every aspect of our lives,” said Greg Coleridge, Move to Amend National Co-Director and Cleveland Heights resident. “These public hearings are opportunities to not only oppose these developments, but to advocate for a fundamental solution to increase people power: enactment of the We the People Amendment that affirms the rights protected by the Constitution are rights intended only for human persons, not corporations, and that money spent in elections is not free speech and can be publicly regulated.”
"In Ohio we are directly witnessing catastrophic malfeasance by corporate profit interests: animal factory farm waste into lake Erie, toxic train wreck in East Palestine, massive corrupted buyout of Ohio elected officials in Energy policy with HR 6 and First Energy corrupting the Ohio House leadership. It’s time to end this with one single constitutional amendment,” stated Dennis Slotnick, coordinator of the Toledo Democracy Day hearing. "This year, presentations will include, but are not limited to: The climate crisis, healthcare as a human right, voter suppression, a clean and healthy Lake Erie, statewide energy policy, CAFOs & watershed management, jobs with Justice and labor interests as each relates to a corporation is not a person and money is not the same as free speech."
“We urgently need the We the People amendment to take back the power and ‘rights’ our government have bestowed on corporations. Most Americans simply don't realize the power corporations now wield over our health, safety, and public welfare. Nor do we understand the severe consequences of corporations having the Constitutional rights of citizens. The We the People amendment will return Constitutional power and ‘rights’ to the American people not just to the moneyed interests,” stated South Euclid Democracy Day public hearing organizer Madelon Watts.
"Democracy Day is important as we need to call attention to the solution to the problem of powerful unaccountable for profit interests, dominating our public discourse by polluting our politics and airwaves with destructive disinformation designed to divide and confuse our citizens,” said Painesville Democracy Day co-coordinator Brad Deane. “Their power is fueled by unchecked, unlimited, and unknown donations to an increasingly disconnected political class. We will only overcome this oppressive power by declaring corporations are not people and money is not speech. Thus, removing the shield and fuel from those who seek to unjustly dominate our democracy.”
"Brecksville voters enacted an ordinance to create a Democracy day in 2012. The ordinance provides for public hearings for citizens to express their thoughts on the influence of money in politics," stated Brecksville Democracy Day coordinator Robert S. Belovich. "This year the City administration refused to sponsor Democracy Day. Nevertheless Brecksville Citizens for Transparent Politics have picked up the ball and are providing a public hearing. All are welcome."
Ohio Move to Amend State Networkhttp://www.movetoamend.org/